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'South Sudan leaders, international community at fault for latest violence'

Albert Gonzalez Farran, AFP | A member of the Sudan People's Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO) stand guard at a military site in the capital of Juba on April 25, 2016

South Sudan experts say the latest outbreak of deadly clashes between rival soldiers in the capital of Juba was largely foreseeable, expressing concerns about an increase in human rights abuses as violence spreads.

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Hundreds of people have been killed or injured following days of gun battles and artillery fire in Juba, with 36,000 more displaced, according to the United Nations. South Sudan's government said at least 272 people were killed in the fighting, which erupted late on Thursday.

The initial skirmishes between rival soldiers in the capital last week appeared to take President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar by surprise as the former enemies made a joint public appearance and as the country prepared to celebrate the fifth anniversary of its historic independence.

But experts said that renewed fighting between the soldiers who serve Kiir and others loyal to Machar was largely foreseeable in an environment of seething enmity and waning attention by the international community.

“The signs have been bad for a long time. I have been saying for months now that Juba was a tinderbox, with rival forces positioned so close to each other,” Jehanne Henry, a senior Africa researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW), told FRANCE 24 by telephone.

Marina Peter, chair of the Sudan and South Sudan Forum, a Germany-based advocacy group, agreed that the deadly flare-up in Juba was a tragedy waiting to happen.

In a country where rising ethnic tensions have gone unchecked, where police and soldiers have not been paid for months and where “everyone is armed to the teeth”, the smallest incident could have served as a detonator. “It would have been a miracle if nothing happened,” Peter said in reference to the resurgence in fighting.

No commitment

Civil war erupted in December 2013 along ethnic lines, when President Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe, accused VP Machar, a Nuer, of plotting a coup. Between 50,000 to 100,000 people were killed across the country in the first year of fighting, according to the International Crisis Group, with an estimated 2.3 million others displaced.

A shaky peace agreement signed in August 2015 helped abate the worst of the violence, but observers have routinely questioned Kiir and Machar’s real commitment to the ceasefire.

Peter cited interviews the leaders gave only days before their troops faced off in the streets of Juba last week. The South Sudanese president complained of being forced into an unacceptable peace deal by donor nations, while recognising no responsibility for the carnage unleashed on communities by troops loyal to him.

“The resurgence in violence shows the failure of leaders to implement the peace plan and in general to take it seriously,” HRW’s Henry said. She also underscored the “failure of international guarantors to put coordinated and consistent pressure [on South Sudanese leaders] to see the plan through”.

Fears of spreading violence

A tenuous calm held in South Sudan’s capital for a second straight day on Wednesday, with residents venturing outside for the first time in days and the resumption of commercial flights. But experts said there was scant information so far on the exact number of victims and how they were killed in the recent violence.

Both Henry and Peter said they did not know if civilians had been caught in the crossfire indiscriminately or had been deliberately targeted based on ethnicity, in what would be a more worrying scenario.

Henry feared the violence – which in Juba included helicopter gunships and anti-aircraft guns – could spread further. The previously unaffected states of Equatoria and Bahr El-Ghazal have been hit by fighting in recent months and could be particularly vulnerable to new conflict, she warned.

Henry also expressed alarm over reports that civilians fleeing the clashes had been turned away at the Ugandan border by South Sudanese soldiers. “These restrictions on movement are very worrying,” she said.

New leadership needed?

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday called for the Security Council to boost its peacekeeping forces in South Sudan and for an immediate arms embargo on the country. He also demanded new sanctions on any South Sudan leaders seen to be blocking implementation of the peace agreement, calling the renewed fighting “outrageous”.

Regional African states have also argued for sending more troops and for expanding the UN mandate to enforcing peace from its current focus on protecting civilians. The UN has 12,000 peacekeeping troops and police currently deployed in South Sudan.

But hope for peace in the world’s youngest nation – at least in the short term – appears to be fading.

“No one is ever held accountable to the peace agreements or to international treaties,” Henry said in explaining the lack of progress. “In South Sudan there is an environment of absolute impunity that helps explain why the sides have no trust in each other.”

Peter, who has worked on peace initiatives in the Sudan region for three decades, admitted that she had all but given up on Kiir, Machar and their political entourages.

“I cannot see any peaceful future with these leaders. They have shown that they do not care about human lives at all, they care only for their own survival,” Peter fumed. “They regularly speak about peace, but in the end they are always preparing for war.”

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